On a Wing and a Prayer: Airport Chaplains Offer Help and Hope to Travelers

“Dear friends, make sure that every person—of whatever nationality or social background—can find in you a welcoming heart, able to learn and understand.”
–Pope Benedict XVI
June 11, 2012

Airport Chapel Sign - Dulles International Airport, Washington DC

Good advice for all!  In this case, though, our Holy Father was speaking to airport chaplains. 

At the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, some 100 priest chaplains and assistants gathered in Rome June 11-14 to discuss new methods and new forms of evangelization in their area of ministry.  The four-day event was the 15th World Seminar for Catholic Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members.

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On a recent stopover at Chicago’s Midway Airport, I passed the chapel and paused to reflect on this unique ministry.  The chapel at Midway offers a schedule of daily Masses and nondenominational services.  Confession is available ten minutes before each Mass, or on request.  There are Catholic, Protestant and Muslim chaplains on site, ready to assist passengers and airline personnel with their spiritual and temporal needs. 

Chapel Sign - Chicago's Midway Airport

I loved the quiet reverence of Chicago’s airport chapel with its muted colors, its rows of comfortable seats, its modest altar.  Located as it is next to the popular USO, I found it busy with soldiers and their families, murmuring their sweet goodbyes before deployment to Afghanistan.

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"Reflection Room" Sign - Detroit Metropolitan Airport

Later, back at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I was disappointed by the politically correct “Reflection Room.”  Accessible via a little-used hallway and an elevator to the third floor, the drab Reflection Room offers no hint that it’s a sacred space, a place for inspiration and circumspection and prayer. 

"Religious Reflection" Room - Detroit Metropolitan Airport

Perhaps it’s because Detroit’s population includes more Muslims, fewer Catholics, and fewer people likely to visit the room; but its distance from the heart of the terminal makes it even more likely that it will remain empty throughout the day.

The quiet beauty of the Catholic chapel at Cleveland’s airport is a counterpoint to Detroit’s blank-walled empty room. 

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So what, exactly, happens at an airport chapel?

In addition to holding regular liturgies and prayer services, a priest or minister assigned to the airport certainly will encounter people in their most poignant moments:  soldiers who are shipping out and their worried families; newlyweds embarking on a lifetime of shared joys and sorrows; worried daughters flying to the assistance of elderly parents; young adventurers, leaving home for the first time to attend college, and graduates hoping to make their mark in the big city;  flight crews and personnel who have just learned of the death of a loved one….  Airport chaplains step in at life’s most difficult moments, and share one’s greatest joys.

Pope Benedict noted, in addressing the conference, that even a brief exchange with a kind and welcoming chaplain can have a big impact on leading a person to Christ.  “Be assured,” he said, “that even in chance encounters, people are able to recognize a man of God, and that often a small seed falling on good soil can bring forth abundant fruit.”